Letters and Notes

by Angela Tung on January 9, 2012

Letters from my grandfather to his parents

Photo by cynthiacloskey

It’s National Letter Writing Week! Instead of sending that email, direct message, or text, why not set pen to paper, slap a stamp on an envelope, and drop your letter in the mail?

The word letter, meaning “a written or printed communication directed to a person or organization,” comes from the Greek diphtherā, “hide, leather, writing surface.” According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the Latin plural litteræ meaning “epistle, written documents, literature,” was first attested in the early 13th century, replacing the Old English ærendgewrit, “errand-writing.”

If you’re the formal type, you might want to write an epistle, a letter “used particularly in dignified discourse or in speaking of ancient writings,” and also “one of the letters included as a book in the New Testament” and “any kind of harangue or discourse.” Epistle comes from the Greek epistellein, “to send a message,” which also ultimately give us epistolary, “pertaining to letters or the writing of letters.”

Another kind of formal letter is the brevet, “a letter of authority; a commission,” or “a commission to an officer which promotes him to a higher rank.” The word comes from the Old French brievet, “letter, note, piece of paper; papal indulgence,” which is a diminutive of bref, “letter, note.”

Want to be short and sweet? Write a chit, “a short letter or note; a written message or memorandum; a certificate given to a servant; a pass, or the like.” Chit comes from the Hindi word chitthi, “letter, note.” A billet is “a small paper or note in writing; a short letter or document,” and in French means “document or note” (coming from the Middle Latin bulla, “decree, seal, sealed document”).

In love? Send your paramour a billet-doux, a short love note, which translates from the French as “sweet note.” Have a crush? Send a mash note. According to World Wide Words, mash was “a slang term in the US in the 1870s for an infatuation or crush,” and “could also be a dandy or the object of one’s affection,” or “to make amorous advances to a member of the opposite sex, to flirt or seduce.” The mash note is an extension of this idea and “refers mainly to an expression of attraction or desire from a stranger or acquaintance that is unlikely to be welcome.”

If you need to break up with someone, send a Dear John letter. The ever-trusty World Wide Words tells us that the expression seems “to have been invented by Americans during the Second World War” when “thousands of US servicemen were stationed overseas for long periods,” many finding “that absence didn’t make the heart grow fonder.” Additionally, “John was a common generic name for a man at this period.”

To your object of hatred you might send a poison-pen letter, a kind of anonymous hate mail. The phrase poison-pen letter was popularized in 1913 “by a notorious criminal case in Pennsylvania,” but the term “may date back to 1908.” (By the way, blackmail, “extortion in any mode by means of intimidation,” has nothing to do with letters or the post office. The -mail portion of the word comes from the Middle English male, “rent, tribute,” which comes from the Old English mal, “lawsuit, terms, bargaining, agreement.”)

To thank someone “who has recently provided you with hospitality, usually dinner or an overnight visit,” you might write a bread-and-butter letter, with bread and butter referring “to hospitality in general.” To beg someone for money, you might write, or screeve, a begging letter, known as phishing if done by email. Charles Dickens wrote about the begging-letter writer here.

A green-ink letter, chiefly a British English term, comes from someone “who claims that he is the victim of some injustice, or who composes long and vehement complaints against a person or an organisation.” A collective of such people is referred to as the green-ink brigade. Why green? The origin is disputed. World Wide Words says it may be attested to the late 1990s and the belief by British journalists that people who were particularly eccentric preferred green ink.

A much earlier mention occurs in American astronomer Carl Sagan’s 1973 book, The Cosmic Connection: “There came in the post an eighty-five-page handwritten letter, written in green ball-point ink, from a gentleman in a mental hospital in Ottawa.” A recent mention occurred on an episode of the television show, Homeland. Carrie, a brilliant CIA agent who suffers from mental illness, searches madly for a green pen during a breakdown. “The only thing important now is the green pen,” she says.

A drop letter is “a letter that is mailed and delivered from the same post office,” while a dead letter is “an unclaimed or undelivered letter that after a period of time is destroyed or returned to the sender by the postal service,” or specifically the dead letter office.

For some letter writing advice, you might like Appleton’s Complete Letter Writer: The Useful Letter Writer, or The Complete Letter Writer. For letter writing etiquette, check out Emily Post’s advice on the proper way to write notes and shorter letters and longer letters. Some “letters that no one cares to read” include Letters of Calamity; Letters of Petty Misfortunes; and the Letter of the Capital “I,” “a pompous effusion which strives through pretentiousness to impress its reader with its writer’s wealth, position, ability, or whatever possession or attribute is thought to be rated most highly.” Finally, for inspiration, visit one of our favorite websites, Letters of Note.

[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by cynthiacloskey]

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